A member of the British House of Lords, David Alton, has just returned from the Thai-Burma border where he visited refugee camps and a military base of the Karen resistance inside Burma's jungle, on behalf of the British human rights group Jubilee Campaign. As Thai military officials reiterated their determination to uproot 10,000 of the 116,000 refugees Lord Alton warns that another tragedy in the saga of the long suffering Karen people may be about to occur.
January 4th 1998 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Burmese independence from Britain. A flag-hoisting ceremony was suitably subdued as Myanmar, or Burma as most of the world still knows it, commemorated half a century of human rights abuses and oppressive authoritarian government. Without any sense of irony, another ritual ceremony will take place next month of the occasion of armed forces day.
I have just returned from a human rights visit to refugee camps on the Burmese-Thai border, a visit which took me into an anti-government military base in Burma. From all I saw and heard I was left in no doubt that this half a century represents fifty tragically wasted years.
Britain needs to examine its conscience about the role which it played in the genesis of this tragedy and urgently challenge the repatriation of refugees to a country where torture, rape, slavery and death await them. Burma is a pariah nation. It is unconscionable that huge European and American investments should continue to be made in a country where the abuse of human rights is a daily pastime.
Eco-tourism ventures, the Ye-Tavoy railway, the Yadana pipeline - operated by the French company, Total, and the US-based Unocal (and which is due to supply natural gas to Thailand) are just some of the infrastructure projects which have involved the use of forced labour, including children and pregnant women, according to reports by Agence France Presse International.
Britain was reported, with US$600 million of trade under the last Government, to be one of Burma's biggest trading partners. The present Government has signalled its distaste for such investments and a Foreign Office Minister, Baroness Symons, told Parliament last June that we have not ruled out the possibility of further measures, including economic sanctions in line with those already imposed by the United States.
The ugly sounding, ugly acting, SLORC (State Law And Order Restoration Council) are now the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) - although God knows there is precious little peace or development of democracy or human rights of which to boast. Burma's democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma's National League for Democracy (NLD) was freed from house arrest by the SLORC in July 1995 but her movements remain severely circumscribed. Notwithstanding these restrictions the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and daughter of General Aung San, who led the struggle against British colonial rule, remains a potent symbol for democrats. Her father was assassinated in July 1947, aged 32. She was just two years old.
The military junta which has governed the country since 1962 has done its best to destroy the NLD. Following the massacre of thousands of people during student led riots in 1988, SLORC allowed free elections in 1990. But when the NLD achieved an overwhelming victory the military junta set aside the results. Following Aung San Suu Kyis six years of house arrest, mean spirited and provocative acts continue to be directed against her. At Christmas, for instance, her husband, the Oxford academic, Michael Aris, and her younger son, Kim, were denied visitors visas.
Even by its own feckless standards the Burmese Government has excelled in combining repression with corruption. In December last a group of high ranking military officers were placed under house arrest amidst charges of corruption. The seedy world of illegal drugs and racketeering involving foreign investment is umbilically linked to the highest reaches of government. A former American intelligence officer told me that half of the entire American heroin market comes from Burma's Wa State alone. Many believe that the systematic clearance of the border areas is to give greater control of the lucrative drugs trade to the country's murdering drugs peddling leaders.
Less well known and less well documented than the odious behaviour of the evil clique who - aided and abetted by China's Communists - terrorise Burma, is the relentless forced submission and assimilation of its ethnic minorities. Muslims are just one example. 10,000 Muslims from all over Burma now live in the border refugee camps. The Burmese military have destroyed 42 of their mosques in all parts of the country. Mr Mohammed Yaseen, General Secretary of the All Burma Muslim Union and Dr Abdul Razzak, its Chairman, told me that no one had ever been to see them before to establish how they had been treated or how they are faring. Since 1996 Muslim people have been arrested and pressed into forced labour. The Burmese military have subjected them to humiliations such as forcing them to eat pork. And they have been cleared out of whole villages, such as Kyaikdon, Pahkloni, Maekatita, Sakhathat, and Mabu. Occupants were evicted, animals and possessions taken away, said Dr.Razzak.
Another group are the long-necked Karen women - the Padaung - who recently caught the public eye when a Thai businessmen turned these refugees into a human zoo. Exploitation is just another burden for the refugees to bear.
Statements which I have gathered in Burma's refugee camps reveal a story of ethnic cleansing every bit as terrible as Bosnia and genocide every bit as cruel as Rwanda. Through our indifference we are repeating a betrayal every bit as great as that which occurred some fifty years ago.
A BBC television documentary, made by the respected S.E.Asia Foreign Correspondent of The Times, Andrew Drummond, was entitled Britain's Forgotten Allies. It is a phrase on the lips of all the Karen leaders I met.
On January 31st the Karen commemorated their Revolution Day - and forty-nine years of fighting the Burmese military government. This must surely be one of the worlds longest running civil wars - and one in which we played an undistinguished and even treacherous role.
The leader of the seven million Burmese Karen is the veteran General Saw Bo Mya. President of the KNU (Karen National Union). He has served in the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) since being demobilised from Britain's Force 136 which bravely and valiantly resisted the Japanese during World War Two.
The Generals two sons are today engaged in active service deep in Burma's jungles in the continuing war of attrition against SPDC forces. The Myas are a closely knit family. Major Ner Dah Mya, aged 31, the General's second son, combines a gentle spirit with steely determination. This highly articulate American educated major, will carry the Karen torch for the next generation
The Karen are the largest ethnic group in South East Asia without their own country. The General lays the blame firmly at the door of the British. He told me that the British gave a cast-iron promise of independence to their war time allies but we are the allies you have abandoned and forgotten he says. Betrayal has led to enslavement.
In scenes reminiscent of the construction of the bridge over the River Kwai when the Japanese used British servicemen as their navvies, throughout the country millions of people from the ethnic minorities are being used as forced labour to build roads, railways and amenities - up to a standard suitable for the visiting tourists whom the Burmese are so keen to attract as a boost for their devastated economy. Since the fall of their military headquarters at Manerplaw in 1995, the KNLA has been forced deeper still into the jungles where it continues to fight a guerrilla war against the Burmese military. As David stalks Goliath - 5,000 troops pitted against 350,000 Burmese military - they know that this epic struggle is against a regime which routinely practices genocide, which takes no prisoners, and which will not rest until Karen people and culture are obliterated.
But they do at least have a cause: self determination within an autonomous Karen state in a federal Burma. The Burmese solders, by contrast, are conscripts who are often demoralised and resentful. I met a deserter who had crossed the lines four days earlier. He told me how alcohol and mind bending drugs are given to the soldiers before they go into battle to hype their courage. The Karen leaders report incidents where Burmese military keep advancing even in the face of machine gun fire. The drugs may temporarily mask fear and pain but they do not stop death. San Hla Maung was a corporal in the 119th battalion, 33rd division of the Burmese army. He told me that there is widespread disillusionment inside the Burmese military forces. Many don't like doing the regimes dirty work. If civilians refuse to become porters for the army and soldiers were made to beat them or kill them. All this for 6 dollars a month. He spoke about the use of forced labour to build Burmas new roads, railways and hotels. Men are used as buffaloes. How can western tourists consider coming to stay in these facilities when they have been built with our blood? he asked me.
When there is a general uprising against the military regime he believes that most Burmese soldiers would rather drown with the people than obey orders to annihilate them and he says that many soldiers are secret NLD supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The regime's forces have left a trail of desolation behind them. One American missionary told me: Desolation is everywhere. I saw abandoned rice fields, empty villages, destroyed homes. Field upon empty field. The land was desolate. Not even the birds sing. The burning of the villages and the widespread desolation has also led to 116,000 refugees fleeing across the border into Thailand. The Thai government provided sites for the refugees but has never allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to administer the camps or even to have a permanent presence there. Thailand will not admit that they are even entitled to formal refugees status living in reasonable fear of persecution. Quite what criteria have to be satisfied to achieve such status cannot be imagined. The UNHCRs formidable Director for Relief Operations, Amelia Bonifacio, says that whatever the Thais think these are not merely displaced persons. But she is consigned to an office hundreds of miles away in Bangkok. She has to content herself with sending two officials to each camp once a month. "We have no-one on the border at all; we have no permanent presence," she told me. "It is not a satisfactory arrangement because we have to seek authorisation from the Thai government every time we wish to visit."
If the situation is unsatisfactory for the refugees in the camps consider the plight of the 10,000 Karen refugees whom Major Ner Dah Mya estimates are desperately lying low in remote parts of the jungle hoping to make the dangerous border crossing: Many of them are dying of malaria or from dehydration. There are gross, enormous violations of human rights. We are desperate he says. The situation has become extremely dangerous in the most northerly of the refugee camps because of what is known in Thailand as the logging scandal. The Mae Hong Song Province is home to the northerly refugee camps and also to Thailand's Salween National Park which is rich in teak - or at least it used to be. When no one was looking 13,000 trees were cut down and the rare and highly prized wood mysteriously ended up on the international markets. Initially the refugees were alleged to have been the culprits - a convenient scapegoat - but as the story unfolded the sawdust trail has led to the door of Thai and Burmese military, and to high ranking Thai officials and politicians. Corrupt informal deals vie with the official trade and investment being cultivated by Thailand and Burma and other Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. In another betrayal of those whose human rights have been so badly degraded, Burma was admitted to full membership of ASEAN last year. The latest twist in the logging scandal involves the deputy chief forestry official who said last week that he had been sent an anonymous 5 million baht kickback which he wanted to hand over to the Government as a token of his honourable intentions. They have so far declined the brown envelope. But where does this leave the refugees?
Under the cover of the logging scandal the Thai government has issued an ultimatum: go back to Burma or move to another camp a great distance away. The occupants of the three camps involved, Mae Ye Hta, Klo Pa and U Da Hta have all been told that they will be transported to Mae Ra Ma Luang camp if they choose not to return to Burma. This choice is already forcing some families back across the border. The British Embassy in Bangkok has intervened on their behalf and told me, on Monday, that at least twenty families are going to make the return journey imminently. Thai military announced the same day that they had postponed the removal of the 10,490 refugees for humanitarian reasons. The Bangkok English language newspaper, The Nation (24.2.98) said this was because senior officers feared media attention. The military source told the newspaper that the deadline for removal had now been shifted to March 15th or the very last date for the refugees removal would be the start of the rainy season in April.
Amelia Bonifacio is in no doubt that they will face persecution. She admits that UNHCR will have no way of monitoring what happens to them and that without unhindered access to returning refugees; without the ability to monitor and to assist them; and without a cessation of hostilities, any return is premature. This is a disaster just waiting to happen.
As the world stands by refugees are already regularly evicted from Thailand. An elderly refugee at Bekhlo camp described to me how any refugee crossing the perimeter without permission is taken to a bamboo pen. There they are humiliatingly stripped to their underclothes and left to stand in the scorching sun for the remainder of the day. Relatives or friends have to pay the Thai soldiers 3-400 baht to redeem them. If they are unfortunate enough not to be collected they are sometimes tossed into a truck and taken to the River Moi - which separates the two countries - and, according to the refugee, tipped into the river and left to their own fate.
Last November the Thai military deliberately fired over the heads of Karen refugees. In December, in letters to me and to other British parliamentarians, the Thai Ambassador in London, Vidhya Rayananonda, insists that the attack was not the intention of the Thai soldiers. Two people were wounded and there was a report that a child had died. The Ambassador says there is no report of such a death. I have taken statements that two tiny babies died as a result of the attack. One was dropped by its mother and the other fell as panicking parents fled from the soldiers. Unarmed refugees, women and babies hardly constitute a grave military threat to the Thai army but the Ambassador says This situation was beyond their control.
But this is not to be compared with the Burmese - to whom the refugees are being returned - and who do far far worse things than this. The stories which I will recount underline the terrible danger in which refugees find themselves when they are repatriated.
I visited Hway Ka Loke camp - the camp of the river and skull - situated five kilometers from the border. Burmese military attacked it in January 1997. 107 troops, accompanied by 50 porters, crossed the river and ignited the hospital. The Burmese arsonists burnt down 678 homes. Naw Ku Ser - whose name I have changed to protect her identity - is a Karen refugee whose husband and son-in-law were conscripted by the Burmans in 1996 as porters. When it was found that they could no longer continue due to malaria, they were simply shot dead. Naw Paw Wah, whose name is also changed, said her husband was brutally gunned down in identical circumstances: he couldn't go on carrying the loads any more, so they shot him, she said.
Lets be clear about the scale of the genocide which is underway.
In one camp I met a British-Karen family from the north west of England, who were visiting relatives and friends.
Bruce Humphrey-Taylor, is of British-Karen extraction. His father was a British inspector of excise in the notorious Golden Triangle - still the heart of the Burmese sponsored drugs trade, which claims so many young European and American lives.
Humphrey-Taylor married an English woman, Mary, and settled in Great Sutton on the Wirral. He was one of the 50,000 Karen troops who fought for the British. A holder of the Burma Star, he says "I put my badges and medals in the bin. I refused to join the Burma Star Association because the British betrayed us. It would dishonour the thousands of dead."
Humphrey-Taylor alleges that the British Government failed to provide Karen troops, who as Britains allies were systematically persecuted by the Japanese, with even a pension. He adds that in 1948 a one-off payment was made by the Attlee Government to the Burmans but the money was never made over to the Karen.
Until the mid-fifties Humphrey-Taylor fought alongside KNLA forces and has devoted the rest of his life to ensuring that the world is not allowed to forget. He has personally seen Karen women who have been spiked by pushing a bamboo pole through their bodies. The Burman soldiers just stood there and laughed. He insists that torture and rape is practiced to this day. And dozens of human rights reports bear him out.
A camp leader told me how four women were killed in Papun District two years ago. They were first raped. Two, who were pregnant, had their stomachs stamped upon by the Burmese soldiers - first killing their unborn babies and then their mothers. The other two women were stabbed to death.
After the 1988 uprising students were burnt alive in cremation executions and others were buried alive as they screamed their final protests.
Last year the Bekhlo refugee camp was attacked by Burmese militia. One of the defenceless victims was a little girl aged ten. Hsa Gler Mu was hit in the stomach by rocket propelled grenade fragments. She will bear the physical scars for the rest of her life. Emotionally, she was terrified and is haunted by the nightmare that the Burmese will return and do it again. On that same morning, Naw Bway Tee, aged 85, had risen to cook the rice and fish paste provided by the foreign aid groups - without whom the Karen would starve and go without education, health, and clean water. Naw Bway Tee had four children and nine grandchildren, and despite her age she was always the first to rise. Her son, Hsa Law Lah - wonderful star - told me how the deadening boom of the attack woke the sleeping family. Fragments of the shells played on the bamboo screens like monsoon water in the rainy season. Engulfed by panic the family scrambled for shelter emerging to find the familys matriarch dead by her cooking pot. She had been killed instantly by shrapnel which struck her spinal cord. Theirs and sixteen other homes were razed to the ground.
I have in my possession, and will hand over to the British Government, the casing from the RPG7 (Rocket Propelled Grenade) used in that attack. Like much of Burma's military hardware it was made in China. On Friday I will meet the Thai Interior Minister and will present photographic evidence of the cases which I have described.
In another development, China has provided many of the anti-personnel landmines which now litter the border area. Major Ner Dah Mya estimates that 10,000 mines have already been laid by both sides. In total contravention of the Geneva Convention these have been laid indiscriminately in rural areas without any warnings being posted and without any mapping of where the mines have been laid. At the prosthesis centre in Bekhlo camp I saw some of the consequences. Maw Kehk lost his leg to a Burmese mine - now he skilfully makes artficial limbs for those who make it to the camps after detonating a mine on the other side of the border. Since April last he has provided artificial limbs for 130 people - and the daily toll is rising. Maw Kehk says the Burmese don't care about human beings. Their mines come from China and from the former Soviet Union - and the Burmese make their own. He says that because of the use of plastics and because of their tiny size the mines are often impossible to detect: when children come across them they are fatally attracted he says.
Ko Lah, now aged 27, was 21 years old when he stumbled on a mine in the jungle village of Shwe Kwin, in the Myang District. He lost a leg. How does he feel about the Burmese? "I feel nothing," he says stoically.
And, as if all of this were not bad enough, there is the jungle's most ancient of enemies awaiting repatriated refugees: mosquitoes.
Daniel Kuypers of the Mae Sot Malaria Research Centre at Mae Sot told me that the border area is officially the world's epicentre for the virulent P.F. drug resistant strain of malaria. The disease is the region's biggest killer and away from the camps it is difficult to see what medical support or care returning refugees will have.
What is happening in Burma today is every bit as evil as the atrocities committed by the Bosnian war lords. The Karen people have a rich culture. It is being destroyed. Cultural and physical genocide has been compounded by betrayal and manipulation.
Atrocities in Bosnia shocked European sensibilities because courageous reporters ensured that the story was told. Politicians reacted with international and judicial sanctions. Trials for war crimes have been established at the Hague. Compare that with our reaction to Burma or to Cambodia. What is intolerable in Europe should not be any more tolerable because it is in South East Asia. Is a life in South East Asia worth less than a life in South East Europe?
The creation of an international War Crimes Tribunal to try Burma's military junta should be established without delay. Every European and American company - such as the oil giant, Total - who continue to invest in Burma should be subjected to massive disinvestment campaigns. The UNHCR should be given joint authority over the refugee camps with the Thais. And governments should become serious about attacking the military junta which has caused all this misery - not the refugees who deserve every protection which we can give them.
DAVID ALTON IS AN INDEPENDENT CROSSBENCH MEMBER OF THE HOUSE OF LORDS. FOR EIGHTEEN YEARS PREVIOUSLY HE WAS A MEMBER OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS. HE IS TREASURER OF THE ALL-PARTY PARLIAMENTARY GROUP ON LANDMINES AND HAS BEEN ON THE THAI-BURMA BORDER VISITING REFUGEE CAMPS AND KAREN MILITARY BASES ON BEHALF OF THE BRITISH HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP, JUBILEE CAMPAIGN. HE IS PROFESSOR OF CITIZENSHIP AT LIVERPOOL'S JOHN MOORES UNIVERSITY.
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